A Bruised Self Image: An Analysis of Conflict in John Keats' "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles"
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John Keats' "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles" is a sonnet written upon visiting the British Museum, subsequent to the country's purchase of marble statues that had originally been part of the Parthenon in Athens. The poem contains a web of underlying tensions and conflicts that are evident in both the words and imagery of the poem. However, unlike other sonnets in which conflict is often resolved by the end, this sonnet leaves a lasting feeling of despair which sheds light on the internal strife embodied within the speaker himself.
The conflict contained in this poem is reflected first and foremost in its theme. Much controversy surrounds the purchase of these ancient works of art. The lawfulness of the removal of these statues from the Parthenon is under review still to this day. The question remains, was Lord Elgin justified in removing the collection, and if not, should it be returned to Athens. While Lord Byron criticized its removal in his poem "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" stating that "Dull is the eye that will not weep to see / Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed / By British hands" (Canto II line 129-131), Keats was deeply inspired by them and supported the efforts of Haydon who wished to have the collection preserved in the museum to be displayed before the country. Keats went as far as to compose another sonnet upon viewing the marbles, which is addressed directly to Haydon in an attempt to express his indebtedness towards him for this inspiration. The writing of this second sonnet suggests that Keats feels his abilities are lacking, in that he allows for his greatness to be attributed to another.
Aside from the controversy surrounding the statues, the collection itself represents the ideas of conflict and ...
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... bruised by the poor reception of his poetry. The realizations that we all "must die", and that attempts to attain immortality through art are in vain, leave this sonnet with a lasting and overriding sense of despair.
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